CD Review: Mulatu Astatke – Sketches of Ethiopia

Mulatu Astatke – Sketches of Ethiopia
(Jazz Village SP 9570015 . CD Review by Alison Bentley)

Ethiopian vibraphonist and percussionist Mulatu Astatke has spent most of his 70 years mixing Ethiopian musical traditions with jazz. ‘Some of the music is meant to be danced to, some to be listened to. I’ve always thought of music in these terms.’

Astatke’s UK links go back to student days, and this new album brings together British and Ethiopian instrumentalists and singers. Each track ‘sketches’ a different part of Ethiopia and its traditions, mostly written and arranged by Astatke: composed horn riffs, overlapping in harmony; calls and responses; strong grooves, and mostly simple chords. Horn lines are based on Ethiopian 5-note scales. Astatke: ‘It’s 5 tones against 12-tone music…How do you combine these two things and keep the color of those modes?’ Pentatonic phrases recur hypnotically throughout the album, and when the jazz solos emerge they’re all the more striking in contrast. But the emphasis is on the textures of the whole group.

Half the tracks are instrumental, though Azmari alludes to Ethiopian improvising singers. The piece has tense, stabbing riffs, with piano and cello woven among the traditional instruments The strong percussion (Richard Olatunde Baker) almost recalls the bateria of the Brazilian carnival- Astatke was drawn to Latin music early in his career, and is credited as introducing the congas to Ethiopia.

The traditional Hager Fiker has a funky bass groove (John Edwards), Astatke’s vibes solo is beautifully imaginative, relishing the freedom of all 12 notes. James Arben’s flute solo merges exquisitely with the effervescence of Yohanes Afwork’s Ethiopian flute, the washint. Indri Hassun’s masinko (single-stringed bowed lute) sounds like John Lee Hooker’s blues.

Assosa Derache and Motherland Abay feel more meditative. The first opens with Byron Wallen’s plaintive muted trumpet, recalling Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, thickening into Gil Evans-like horn arrangements. There’s a tumbling bluesy piano solo from Alex Hawkins, a bubbling bass clarinet solo from Arben, and blistering trumpet solo from Wallen.  The second has a forest of improvised sounds: the chatter of percussion, notes dripping from vibes and piano, long rich cello lines from Danny Keane. It’s an example of the atmospheric qualities of Astatke’s music, that led Jim Jarmusch to use it in his film Broken Flowers.

Tesfaye sings gravelly lead vocals on three pieces inspired by Ethiopian peoples and places. The vocal harmonies are in spicey fourths, rather than sweet thirds. Kandia Kora’s twinkling kora notes add to the polyrhythms of Gamo, backed by some fine hard bop horn lines. Gambella has a rolling drum beat (Tom Skinner) behind glittering vibes and percussion. Astske’s music has been widely sampled by hip hop artists, and Gumuz is pure jazz funk, here on the guitar-like Ethiopian krarr (Messale Asmamow)- an instrument that Astatke has been helping to develop for jazz. Tesfaye sings a repeated line in traditional style over changing, complex jazz chords- the exciting tension between the two musical worlds is at its strongest. The vibrant Surma features the winsome vocals of Malian Fatoumata Diawara. The way she clusters the syllables creates dramatic tension against the impetus of the groove.

Astatke’s style is wonderfully original: when studying jazz at Berklee he ‘…had a very interesting teacher who said, “Be yourself”. So I…became myself, by creating the music, Ethio-jazz’. Each listening reveals a new layer of subtlety and richness, as the compelling Ethiopian rhythms and scales fuse with jazz improvisation.

Categories: miscellaneous

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